When to start weaning?
The Department of Health recommends that until six months of age, breast milk or infant formula will provide all the nourishment needed for adequate growth and development.
From six months onwards nutrient stores such as iron, zinc, vitamin A and D become depleted and energy requirements increase beyond that which can be provided by milk -see nutritional aspects of weaning.
Infants naturally begin to develop skills such as sitting up, grasping objects and exploring their mouths after the first few months of life and in turn will begin to show more interest in foods.
Every infant is different and some will develop more quickly than others. For this reason it may be appropriate to introduce non-milk foods into the diet before six months.
The Department of Health recommends that foods can be introduced by the end of the fourth month at the earliest, however care must be taken when deciding which foods to try at this early stage, as the digestive system of infants at this age is still very immature and the risk of developing allergies to foods is higher -see safe weaning foods.
It is also important to remember that at four months, an infant’s ability to control and swallow foods in the mouth is limited and the risk of choking is higher, it is therefore important to proceed with caution.
How to start weaning?
Stage one (six months) - taking the first step
The first step in the weaning process is simply to introduce the infant to the idea of solid foods rather than for any nutritional gain.
A good way to start is by offering small amounts (one-two tsp) of mashed vegetables or fruit or gluten free cereal mixed with breast or infant milk after a milk feed (or in the middle if this is more successful).
Babies should be sitting upright to avoid choking and foods should be at an appropriate temperature i.e. not too hot or too cold.
Food should always be offered on a spoon not from a bottle.
Milk should still form the main basis of the diet, with solid food offered once a day increasing the quantity over a period of several weeks.
Salt and sugar should not be added to weaning foods as this will only encourage a taste for sweet or salty foods later in life.
Stage two (six-nine months) - introducing new tastes and textures
The second step is to try some new tastes and textures e.g. different fruits and vegetables, custard, yogurt, fromage frais, pureed meat etc. Whilst still maintaining a soft smooth consistency, it is important to gradually introduce mashed and minced foods as well as purees.
The amounts offered can also be gradually increased as dictated by the baby’s appetite.
Each day, babies should try to have:
- two or three servings of starchy foods e.g. potato, pasta, bread, rice
- two servings of fruit and vegetables
- one serving of meat, fish, pulses e.g. peas, beans, lentils or a well cooked egg with a solid yolk.
- 500-600 ml breast or infant milk
If the baby refuses the food it is best to leave it and try again later on so as not to cause distress.
It is important to wait for the baby to open his/her mouth before offering the food and to allow them to use their hands and touch the food to enable them to explore the new situation.
Soft finger foods such as cooked pieces of vegetable or fruit, and cubes of cheese are a good option once the baby is able to hold things.
Meals should finish with a drink of breast or infant formula as taken. As more solid food is consumed, less milk will be required.
Breast or infant milk should still be offered first thing in the morning and at bedtime as consumption of milk is still important to ensure all nutrient requirements are being met.
Cow’s milk is not suitable to include in the diet until at least 12 months of age.
Stage three (nine-twelve months) - increasing intake of solid foods and trying different textures
As the baby becomes a little older, it will be possible to introduce a wider variety of foods. This is important to ensure that the baby is receiving adequate nutrients to meet requirements and to become exposed to as many different tastes and textures as possible.
Combining foods such meat or pulses and vegetables together in a puree is a great way of helping your baby to receive his/her recommended nutrient intake.
Finger foods are especially useful as this allows the baby to touch and hold the food and to begin feeding him/herself.
Harder finger foods such as pieces of carrot or apple can be given as the child begins to develop teeth.
Tooth friendly snacks such as cubes of cheese and yogurt with fruit are a good idea to protect the developing teeth.
The amount of solid food offered can be increased to more substantial servings and milk given as much as is requested.
Ideally each day babies should be having:
- three-four servings of starchy foods e.g. potato, pasta, bread and rice
- three-four servings of fruit and vegetables
- At least one serving of meat, fish or egg or at least two servings of pulses (peas, beans, lentils).
- 500-600ml of infant milk or breast milk
The amount of food given will depend on each individual. It is best to respond to the baby’s appetite, offering more if they appear hungry or less if not. Babies tend to be the best regulator of their own intake and will let you know if they are not getting enough!
Stage four (12 months onwards) - learning to chew and feed themselves
The aim of weaning is to enable your child to consume the same foods as the rest of the family.
As the infant grows in confidence, a wider range of flavours and textures can be offered.
Ideally each day babies should be having:
- four servings of starchy foods e.g. potato, pasta, bread and rice
- four servings of fruit and vegetables
- At least one serving of meat, fish or egg, or at least two servings of pulses (peas, beans or lentils)
- At least two-thirds of a pint (350ml) of cow’s milk or at least two servings of yogurt or cheese.
Weaning is a gradual process and mothers must ensure that they progress at the right pace for the baby, without rushing.
This may take some time but it is important to remain patient and to keep trying.